Thursday, 31 December 2020

Of Sparse and Dying Earths

There is a spectrum of sparseness for fantasy and SF worlds. 


On the left hand side is 'For a Breath I Tarry', the Zelazny short story in which an entire planet is populated by two robots. On the right hand side are the high fantasy worlds of D&D and modern commercial fantasy fiction, which are crowded and thronging with life. Some other examples off the top of my head, going roughly from left to right: Viriconium, Hyborian earth, Urth, Bas-Lag, Mystara.

An observation: as the genre has matured, its settings seem to have tended more towards the dense than the sparse. The big commercial fantasy worlds nowadays are often filled with peoples, cultures, complex societies and economies. (Think A Song of Ice and Fire - there is a lot going on in that world, isn't there? An awful lot of Sers and Houses and people being murdered in novel ways or shagging their sisters.) Those of long ago seem comparatively empty. (At times you almost feel as though Tolkien knows the names of literally everybody living in Middle Earth.) Is this perhaps to do with the influence of D&D and other fantasy RPGs, and the explosion of interest in world-building and monster creation which followed? Indeed, is there a 'structural bias' in D&D towards the dense setting, because of the assumption that there is a large pool of low-level murder hoboes roaming the land, and an infrastructure to support them? 

Another: not wanting to start a politics flame war, but is there a tendency for conservative writers to more readily embrace the sparse setting? A sparse setting is one which is in decline (Middle Earth, Lyonesse), or dying (Urth); a dense one is developing, optimistic, fresh. A sparse setting is one which a rugged individual can make his (or her) own; a dense one is one which leads more naturally to stories of intrigue, politicking, sociality. I've often thought that Jack Vance's old school libertarianism manifested itself most strongly in the geography of his settings, which are big, open, and often so empty of people that there is almost nothing to constrain the ambition or freedom of his heroes. 

A third: this may seem a banal point, but dense settings naturally lend themselves to nerdish pursuits and 'geeking out', because there is just so much more stuff to learn about, to memorise, to know. Middle Earth is perhaps an exception here, because its history is so detailed (and also because after the Peter Jackson films there was an explosion of spin-offs), but generally speaking older, sparser settings are easily summarised and understood, and neither require nor inspire much in the way of homework. 

I feel the attractions of both types of setting. I love the sheer exuberance of a Mystara or a Bas-Lag. But I feel the pull of the near-empty sword and sorcery world, in which every single NPC is larger than life, special, rare, dangerous. One does not need to restrict oneself to beer or wine for all eternity. 

46 comments:

  1. Eh, I don't think the liberal/conservative thing about dense vs low density worlds is correct. To be fair, I only have two data points: Orson Scott Card, hardcore conservative and his massive growing universe of Enders Game etc., compared to Ursela Le Guin, famed leftist and author of the tightly bound and remarkably small world of Earthsea.

    I don't think there's much of a tendency one way or another, or if it is, it's a small one.

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    1. Two further examples, Brandon Sanderson and Terry Goodkind are both on the right side of the political spectrum and their worlds are highly populated.

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    2. Is Brandon Sanderson? Really?

      On Terry Goodkind I have only read "Wizard's First Rule" but that seemed on the 'sparse' side to me.

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    3. I've only read Sanderson's completion of the Wheel of Time and know nothing of his politics, but Goodkind, once his characters get to the "other side" of the magic wall, they find a heavily populated, highly civilized nation on the other side. And as the series progressed, the libertarianism became pretty heavy handed. I never finished the series, but by about book 3 or 4, Terry was laying it on thick.

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    4. Sanderson is Mormon and teaches at BYU and historically has hewed to social conservatism, struggling with gay marriage rights in particular. His stories borrow a lot of the themes from Mormonism, deification, garbled religious truth. His portrayal of female characters is very Robert Jordanesque sometimes. After looking it up he's fiscally liberal apparently, I had made assumptions based off of the content of his novels.

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    5. Brandon Sanderson's worldbuilding is just totally offputting to me. But I like Mormons. I've never met a Mormon I didn't like, in fact.

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    6. Mormons can be lovely people, I'm related to several hundred of them in fact. The church just has problems with historical revisionism, homophobia, racism, sexist policies, inadequate financial disclosure, and the historical authenticity of the Book of Mormon. That's leaving out weirder older atrocities like the Mountain Meadows Massacre.

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  2. It feels like there should be a correlation between world-sparseness and the author's philosophy/politics, but perhaps it's hard to pin down because of how fluid the referents for political labels are, e.g. American "conservatism" has changed significantly in just a few decades, between when many of these books were written and today.

    Regardless of an author's personal politics, sparse worlds are inherently libertarian. If the nearest law officer or bureaucrat lives on the other side of the planet/kingdom, you are essentially free to do what you want. Maybe?

    "Busy" worlds are usually the opposite. If you are worldbuilding and ask the question, "how does society and the rule of law work?", you are halfway there already. Any answer, from "There's a king" to "social democracy", requires density and constraint.

    A busy-but-libertarian fictional world would either be chaos or require a good deal of exposition to distinguish itself from just a regular organised society. Also, I suspect a functioning busy-but-libertarian setting would be flat and boring.

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    1. Yeah, maybe sparseness and libertarianism is the main correlation?

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    2. I think it's mostly the Libertarianism, yup. Same as with Westerns - the fantasy of not being told what to do.

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  3. I would agree I don't think it really maps to any sort of ideological leanings. I would say it's more a literary fantasy vs. pulp fantasy thing if anything. Moorcock wrote all sorts of pretty spare works and he's about as left as you can get. Gene Wolfe, personally pretty conservative, would be in the middle. Vance comes out the pulp tradition but one of the things I really like about him is how he implies very complicated world building in a very terse manner.

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    1. Yeah, you're right about Moorcock. The Corum books are stereotypically sparse.

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  4. I have to agree with Annon #8107 on this one.

    I do think you're right that D&D is by product design prone to generate crowded worlds. I think of the endless monster manuals and catalogues of creatures. Their goal is just to surprise and entertain players who like to memorize monster stats, which makes it duller for them, so more monsters are generated, onward in a cycle. The monster zoo dungeons drive me mad, ten different sentient species living in ten adjacent caves without food supply or rationale, and yet all those dungeons seem to be monster zoos. And then, hey, kids, here are three new character races to try! And three more, just buy my book! Suddenly the world is crowded by products advertising new races and monsters to mill about your finite setting. I see the commercial development of the hobby as predisposing us to have crowded worlds.

    For me, the challenge is to make an exciting adventure using as few monsters as possible. My home game allows no non-human PCs. I have a home scenario (maybe to be shared at large one day) that has not one single monster in it, not a soul in the spooky, abandoned place. Yet it is quite dangerous and challenging. If any reader of this thinks that must be boring, I say it's going to seem that way to taste buds used to overdoses of candy.

    But, as you say, there's no reason to marry either wine or beer.

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    1. Yes, the predicates of nerdishness seem to lead inexorably to dense settings.

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  5. It has more to do with when the works you're citing were created than anything else.

    Pulp era: it was still possible to be a conservative in fantasy kinda. Sometimes. And there was particular dense ve. teeming pressure. When we finally went to other planets we saw nothing.

    By the 60s new wave that was over: writers were almost all progressives --and that includes people influenced by that era like Alan Moore and M John Harrison .

    With the 60s comes influences which inspire density:
    -Dune, Star Trek on TV and Star Wars all suggest rich nonsparse, non-NASA-inspired worlds we couldn't see.

    The 80s: Gaming tends toward density. Dark Sun SHOULD be sparse but isn't because we need stuff to play with.

    By the 80s--00s most artists are still progresives, but being interested in fantasy is so niche you get a few conservatives drawn in by the seeming unfashionability/noncyberpunkness of it.

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  6. For producers of gaming books (or fantasy fiction series), a dense setting seems commercially more interesting. Not only can you easily keep on putting out new material, you can also put in "something for everyone".

    On the side of the audience, I think density somehow seems natural to many of us. We live in an overcrowded world, so we intuitively expect this from our imaginary universes, especially those we actively explore. D&D had this right from the start. Yes, there is the wilderness, but the before & after of every adventure is civilization, with its town resembling a medieval version of modern America, albeit with superior plumbing and a feudal overlay.

    And we have a bird's eye view of (historical) cultural diversity. So many of us automatically default to the view that there can't be just a few people sharing the same cultural background in an entire world. There has to be more, even if the player characters don't know what, the GM does.

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    1. I think you're right, but it's interesting that the beginnings of the fantasy genre tended to be the opposite of what you describe.

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    2. True, and it's interesting this seems to apply to both the more commercial authors aiming to make a living out of fantasy writing and those who didn't really need to worry about selling their stuff.

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  7. I can’t tell if my previous comment took, so recommenting (please delete if the old one is in the queue!)... I find sparse settings more appealing both conceptually, and as a DM.

    Conceptually, in part, nature=freedom. Maybe it’s due to early imprinting growing up in a rural area, but there is something so appealing about vast sparely inhabited open spaces. It’s partly environmentalism and biophilia— the beauty of water and plants and greenery. But even places like deserts have a sort of sense of wonder; a feeling of lawlessness and adventure and awe and infinite potential. I’d like to think this isn’t merely some American “frontier spirit” thing... XD

    Beyond my personal love affair with wilderness...As a DM, I prefer sparse settings because I hate having to keep track of complex ‘city politics’ and improvising a thousand NPCs at the drop of a hat. I’m just too lazy... also, I dislike settings where the “appeal” (quote-unquote) is that there are a lot of powerful named NPCs that your PCs can meet. This kind of Vampire: The Masquerade NPC-heavy setting only really appeals to authors and readers of spin-off novels, not to players. Existing as a minor player in a world filled with people more charismatic and powerful than you is too much like reality.

    On a basic level, though, I’d just rather improvise descriptions of weather and landscapes and weird plants and animals than come up with a persona and voice for another NPC shopkeeper...

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    1. Ha. Yeah, when you put it like that I often feel the same way.

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  8. I think it's worth distinguishing between, let's call it, anthropologically dense settings and lore-dense settings. the former is something like Westerns: complex political systems, a world with ample rule of law and a well-developed civilization. but the westeros monster manual, as it is, isn't ESPECIALLY dense, there's no endless checklist of fantasy races. the original star wars trilogy, on the other hand, isn't especially dense anthropologically-- you've got one empire, one rebellion, not very much displayed in the way of economic structures or political sophistication. the major workings of the world could be summed up on an index card. yet lore-wise, it's a bottomless pit: there are countless alien weirdos in the cantina alone, countless strange details mentioned only in passing, an implied setting that could (and has) been spun into a kaleidoscope of microcosms.

    In Westeros, three identical human peasants from different parts of the setting might be completely alien to one another based on cultural differences. In the (original trilogy's) Star Wars universe, three literal aliens with vastly divergent anatomies could easily become bosom buddies over a drink, bonding over shared life experiences, because the galaxy is functionally a monoculture. (Which is why it rings ESPECIALLY bizarre in TFA, for example, when Rey thinks the Jedi might just be the stuff of myth.)

    Faerun, at least as it's presented in 5e, is extremely lore-dense: the DM is expected to fit in PCs and NPCs of countless different sentient humanoid races, and the monster manual for the setting is essentially the monster manual of D&D as a whole. but it's ALSO anthropologically sense-- it's got sociopolitical complexity and different factions and states and shit up the wazoo. it's effectively the worst of both worlds.

    I've got no real beef with density on ONE of these axes at a time: gimme like fifty scattered tribes over a harsh wasteland full of a million different unique monsters and I can vibe with it; gimme a setting with maybe ONE extra fantasy race and A DOZEN special monsters or some shit but crank it up to stupendous levels of politic intrigue and world building and I'll also vibe with it, honestly-- it's just good for a different sort of game than picaresque OSR. I really think that it's just when these two types of densities clash that we get abominations like the Forgotten Realms.

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    1. Yes, I would tend to agree. I suppose it is more realistic to assume that an anthropologically dense setting will also be lore dense, but so much harder to keep track of and so much more potential for crankish obsession.

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    2. These comments remind me of one of the biggest disappointments in the new Star Wars trilogy: it barely introduces any new aliens, so the biological diversity of the other trilogies is kaput, and the plot is already super simple, so basically, zero lore to chew on.

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  9. Another related axis is the defined to undefined axis - compare the "Old World" of Warhammer Fantasy Battle/Roleplay, where you could know exactly what cities were in the Empire, Tilea, and Bretonnia, who were their leaders, what their specialism was, etc etc, and there wasn't a space for another city. A large town, just about, a fortified hamlet in the woods, I guess, but not a city, or a duke, or a count. Whereas the settings of Warhammer 40,000 and Age of Sigmar are intentionally broad and undefined. Want your own hive world of trillions, but the hives all float on massive balloons built 15,000 years ago? Go for it. Want a city where celestial lizard people, sentient trees, and capitalist dwarfs live alongside a race of intelligent salamanders on the back of a four-mile wide snapping turtle? Yeah, you can probably include that. There's no rules for the salamanders, but just make them non-combatants, and it's fine.

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    1. Yes, actually I was going to add to the post that old school Warhammer is rather dense whereas 40k, for all its vast scope, leans sparse.

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  10. Even Forgotten Realms is incredibly sparse compared to medieval Europe or any historical analogy. I tend to create a bunch of villages & a much smaller scale map whenever I GM it.

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    1. That depends on which part of Europe. The populated areas were densely so, but there were vast stretches of wilderness and forest too, I believe.

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    2. You'd really have to get out to the Russian frontier or the far north of Scandinavia to find vast stretches of wilderness. Medieval Britain had millions of people, and AIR the Highlands of Scotland were more populated than they are today. Of course travel was often dangerous, but no one ever had to wilderness-camp overnight on a road between settlements. Which is pretty common in D&D.

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  11. I would argue the problem is best plotted on a time-axis and most strongly correlated to length and publishing format. The S&S tales of yore simply do not have the length to sustain a plethora of complex factors so it makes sense to structure them as islands surrounded by large areas of wilderness, also allowing the writer to invent new and exotic locales as the heroes travel off the map. The rising popularity of lord of the rings in the 70s effectively killed off most of the other fantasy genres and it became the new template for what a fantasy novel should look like. That means gigantic tomes as opposed to tiny paperbacks, sprawling multi-book epics and those worlds require a complexity to fill their multi-book length. Post 1e Faerun is dense because if its big it can be inhabited by a plethora of classes, creatures and civilizations that can be written up in sourcebooks.

    R.e civilizational trajectory and political compass. I'm not entirely convinced. One can find counter-examples such as Leiber's Nehwon, Harrison's Viriconium or E.R.R. Eddison's Mercury (which seems vibrant and brimming with room for great deeds) and there is also the problem that modern conservative authors tend to be comparatively rare so there might be a sampling bias. I think its more a problem of Zeitgeist.

    I might suggest the problem is more readily examined as 'complex' vs 'simple' as any galaxy-spanning epic not teeming with life up to its very interorbular ether is going to seem comparatively desolate.



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    1. You may be right about the length issue. Although a lot of long epic fantasy series feel quite sparse as well - the Eddings ones, for instance, or Shannara.

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    2. Does it make sense to differentiate between population density and the number of complex actors, organizations and civilizations in the world, which are not necessarily equivalent?

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    3. Yes, I think it probably does. Although that leads to the obvious question: are there any settings with low population density but a large number of complex actors, organisations and civilisations?

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  12. I wonder if the popularity and prevalence of Westerns had a big impact on the early pulp writers in terms of population density. Adventure=Lots of open space

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  13. Howard's Hyboria proves you can include dense civilizations in your world, but not particularly respect them other than as hives of vice or (mo' power, mo' problems) kingdoms to eventually rule.

    Middle-Earth is hilarious because the Fellowship never sees a settlement of more than about 1000 souls until Minas Tirith, which is sustained by the totally off-stage Southern Gondor (where did they get the resources to build huge forts? all these soldiers? Southern Gondor!)

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    1. To be fair I think Rohan is described as being normally quite densely populated but everybody has fled to Helm's Deep or run away to the mountains. I actually don't mind the idea that Gondor is mysteriously developed, either. They do have the last bits of Numenorean blood after all, and it makes sense geographically because Gondor is sheltered from harm behind mountains.

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  14. Interesting post. Definitely a spectrum there.

    Expanding re: Vance, his libertarianism (definitely not doctrinaire, but a strong streak), also resulted in some stories set in super **dense** societies. Usually places with rigid, stultifying social structures, so the self-sufficient Vancian hero has something to rebel against. Emphyrio, To Live Forever (Clarges), Alastor: Wyst, Languages of Pao.

    To Live Forever is about a culture with the technology to eliminate death, resulting in mass overpopulation. They develop an elaborate, computer system for executing people sooner or later depending on how much they contribute to society.

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  15. I've just finished a re-read of Bas-Lag and I actually think that there's a real fascination with emptiness in both Iron Council and The Scar - and the sense, similar to Vance - that those spaces outside state control, the wildernesses, are open to the formation of new societies. In the margins exist enormous opportunity for groups, not individuals. The world-building is shallow (or merely suggestive) for large swathes of the map. (Cobsea? What's going on there?). I often feel, especially in The Scar and Iron Council, that Mieville is wrestling with a totalising philosophical/ policitical system (socialism, for example) and how it can deal with the enormous diversity of the real world.

    There is this fascination with diversity in Mieville that comes full circle from the stultifying worlds of Sanderson, Faerun etc where lots of things exist, and are explained (and explainable). Mieville's is a world that has such fecund, kaleidoscopic diversity that nothing can really be explained or comprehended. I think for DMs this is a lesson. Mieville can add endless new things to his world because it feels so wide and strange and unknown. I often DM with a setting that is a region in a wider world, and in which that wider world is not truly known or comprehended, so that there can always be something alien to be found.

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    1. Interesting. I couldn't warm to Perdido Street Station at all but I do like The Scar and Iron Council. I get what you meam about vast emptiness...but there seems a fecundity to Mieville's worldbuilding. Bas-Lag feels very big but also very full.

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    2. I think Perdido Street Station has massive flaws - it's far too long, awkwardly plotted and in love with its tangents (what was the point of the steampunk Skynet plot-line with the Constructs? Why do we get the meeting between the Mayor and the Ambassador from Hell? These scenes were fun, sure, but they didn't add anything) but I love it as extremely nutritious idea-food.

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  16. I've been thinking about your Vance comments, and it occurred to me that Vance has an "artificial scarcity" even when his protagonists go to densely-populated planets. One of the characters in his Cadwal Chronicles series goes to Earth, the densely-populated home of humanity, but he only actually talks to a few people, kind of a "a man is an island" feeling. Other people just don't register much. I'll have to reread this now, to see how he gets the effect.

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    1. You are right about that. Kirth Gerson also goes to Earth in one of the Demon Princes books. It must be The Palace of Love. Again, he interacts with about three people there and only one of them is of any significance.

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  17. Is Westeros really densely populated? I haven't read the books and your talking books so perhaps I'm wrong but judging by the TV show they only have a handful of settlements scattered across a continent and the place seems totally unpopulated in between.

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    1. Maybe not really densely populated but certainly much more densely populated than your average sword and sorcery fantasy world. I've not seen the TV series but the books give an impression of a very populous, fairly developed continent.

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